80 year anniversary for Mackay’s harbour
On 26 August 1939 Queensland Premier William Forgan Smith officially opened Mackay’s new harbour. The construction had commenced in 1935 and was the largest infrastructure project undertaken in the region to date. But the journey to that point had been long and fraught with difficulty.
Mackay’s original port was situated in the Pioneer River and had been an official port since 1863. Aside from being the only means of importing goods and materials for the budding settlement, Mackay’s port quickly became vital for the rapidly developing sugar industry. The port had a problem, however. The river was shallow and had a large tidal range which restricted the entry of large vessels, and even small craft were left high and dry at low tide. This meant that bagged sugar had to be loaded on to small vessels in the river, which then had to wait for high tide to make their way out to larger ships moored off Flat Top Island (lying about 4 kilometers from the river mouth) and transfer the sugar across. Similarly, passengers would travel out to large steam ships waiting at Flat Top Island and be swung between vessels in canvas bags.
Over the years a number of solutions were proposed in order to provide deep water access to Mackay, but most were discounted due to impracticality or expense. In 1913 work was begun on the construction of a rail viaduct connecting Flat Top Island to the mainland, but after considerable expenditure in the preparation of infrastructure for the project, it was determined that the sandy bottom into which the foundations of the viaduct would be laid were too unstable and the project was abandoned in early 1914.
In 1927 James Love, a member of the Mackay Harbour Board, suggested the construction of two stone breakwalls leading out from the shore north of the river mouth to form a harbour. Love’s scheme had many points in its favour – by this time any improvements to the river were considered impractical, the harbour location was close to Mackay, rock for the walls could be easily obtained from nearby Mt Bassett, and it’s location allowed room for expansion in the future. But at over £800,000 it was extremely costly.
Love’s plan may have remained nothing more than that if Forgan Smith hadn’t been elected Premier of Queensland in 1932. Forgan Smith had served as Member for Mackay since 1915 and was committed to seeing a resolution to the city’s port woes and was a strong supporter of Love’s plan. In 1933 he negotiated a loan from the State Government of £1,000,000 plus an additional £250,000 grant in order to construct the harbour.
Work began in 1935 with the construction of road and rail links between Mt Bassett quarry and the harbour site. A Telpher crane was constructed for the project which was stabilized by two large sea anchors on either side and ran on rails to carry rock along the walls. A serious setback was encountered in early 1938 when wind and waves generated by a nearby cyclone breached the partially constructed walls causing the Telpher crane to collapse into the sea. Most of the crane was salvaged, repairs were made, and work continued. Then, weeks before the planned opening in July 1939, soundings revealed the harbour was still too shallow and extra time was required to allow additional dredging to take place.
On 26 August 1939 the Sydney Star of the Blue Star Line sailed into the new harbour, carrying dignitaries on board for the official opening ceremony. A few weeks later, the first shipment of sugar left the harbour.
As MDO for Central Queensland I recently collaborated with North Queensland Bulk Ports to create a display to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the opening of the harbour. NQBP’s archives hold a significant and beautiful collection of images detailing the construction of the harbour from 1935 to the opening in 1939, a selection of which I scanned for use in the final display. In their collection NQBP also have a number of significant items including souvenirs from the opening ceremony, an original programme from the day, contracts for the work and materials for the construction of the harbour, annual reports through the construction period, and artist’s impressions. Digitized images and text were displayed on a large fabric cube. This, together with some of the original items for the collection, formed part of the celebrations organised by NQBP over the weekend to mark the 80th anniversary of the harbour opening. Over 3000 people attended the event, demonstrating the important role the harbour has played in both the economic and social life of Mackay over the past 80 years.